My mum loves Duran Duran. Your mum loves Duran Duran. I’ve already said Duran Duran too many times and it’s already starting to sound unintelligible. Duran Duran Duran Duran Duran. Semantics aside, their reputation bothers me somewhat. The 80s Smash Hits powerhouse have carried their followers through the decades into their middle ages lugging unapproving spouses in tow. Not to make assumptions but in my experience, men who came of age in the early eighties favoured the punk scene or the ska scene; perhaps a few slipped through the cracks, but it seems to be that those who idolised the pop pioneers as I do now were female.
But this isn’t about gender, this is about reputation. The undeniable technical ability of this band is abundantly clear on 1982’s ‘Rio’ – as phenomenal as this album is, it wasn’t where the brilliance began. The band had already hit huge success with their debut single ‘Planet Earth’ in 81, an ambitious first-time effort that rendered them key players in the very early stages of the New Romantic movement. The same year, MTV launched and two weeks in Duran Duran released a controversial music video for their third single ‘Girls on Film’, awash with naked mud wrestling women, champagne showers, and the odd ice cube caressing a nipple. The video was subsequently banned by the BBC and a highly edited version was shown frequently on MTV. This began the second British invasion of America.
To discuss such topics and not talk about bassist John Taylor this far into the article is a punishable crime. Each member of Duran Duran brings something unique to the sound: Simon Le Bon’s tendency to harmonise with himself, Nick Rhodes’ drive for experimentation, and Roger Taylor’s impeccable rhythm. It’s John Taylor’s bass parts that I believe to be what makes Duran Duran so ground-breaking in relation to the rest of the New Romantic and early 80s new wave movements. John Taylor’s secret weapon is a musical technique called syncopation. In layman’s terms, you could say syncopation is adding an extra level of rhythm to what would be a straightforward bassline. Sudden stops and extra notes that fluff out what would be to many a plain experience. Doing so establishes the bass as a component of the rhythm section rather than just an extension of the guitars.
During the UK’s first lockdown, John Taylor began a series of videos known as ‘STONE LOVE BASS ODYSSEY’ in which he describes his thought process in the conception of basslines for some of Duran Duran’s greatest hits. Taylor often talks in interviews about his playing style coming from a background of playing in punk bands as a teen and his favourite bassist, Bernard Edwards of Chic. Knowing this, the pieces begin to fall into place as to how Taylor’s basslines make the songs so fresh and unique with such danceable familiarity. Whether you’re a hardcore Chic fan, an occasional listener or you’ve only ever heard the ‘Rapper’s Delight’ sample of Edwards’ ‘Good Times’ bass riff, you’ll find it hard to deny that nine times out of ten, it’s the bassline that gets you moving.
I have a soft spot for all the bands and artists that surrounded that scene at the time. There’s something about the cheesy songwriting paired with musicians trying to find their feet in an ever-evolving technosphere that really resonates with me. As someone who can load up free software and have thousands of pre-made music production gadgets at my fingertips, I envy the innovation. Bands of the 70s like Kraftwerk and Space laid the groundwork for an electronic age with force. Whilst early patrons of the new wave scene like The B-52s began to splice these elements into predominantly guitar-driven music with success. Duran Duran’s major competitor at the time was Spandau Ballet who deserve all the credit they get, but comparing the two’s music just highlights how explosive the former were.
‘Rio’, released on May 10, 1982, peaked at no. 2 in the UK albums charts – for an album I believe to be the best pop album of the 1980s, this underwhelms me. Yes, it’s only one spot from the top, but as someone who wasn’t there to experience it first-hand, I assumed it would’ve stormed the top spot (it was pipped to the post by the ‘Complete Madness’ compilation). During an interview for the ‘Classic Albums’ docuseries, Duran Duran’s keyboard and synth overlord Nick Rhodes chronicles how he found the sound to kick off the album. The long, drawn-out crescendo of peculiar sounds that begins ‘Rio’ was conceived by dropping metal piping onto the strings of a grand piano and reversing the tape; perfectly showcasing the kind of experimentation people were getting to grips with at the time.
It can be said that behind every great album there’s a great producer. Someone who’s detached from the band enough to give their own separate creative input but not too involved to be pushy; the perfect balance of active and passive participant. Colin Thurston does this perfectly. After working with Tony Visconti to co-produce David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’, he went on to produce Duran Duran’s debut album and ‘Rio’. John Taylor once described Thurston as “a major catalyst for the 80s sound” and I couldn’t agree more. Thurston went on to produce for numerous other 80s staples like Kajagoogoo and Talk Talk before his death in 2007.
Post ‘Rio’, Duran Duran evolved alongside the 80s sound growing larger and larger. The hits didn’t stop throughout the decade and arguably bled into the moody post-synthpop ‘Wedding’ album in 91 which gave us ‘Ordinary World’ and ‘Come Undone’ – two fantastic singles that I think signified the death of the cocky energetic pretty boys who struck gold a decade prior. Still releasing albums and touring to this day, they truly have stood the test of time; constantly gaining new fans through the resilient discography they developed in yesteryear. Pop is an ever-changing genre, re-shaping itself as culture shifts. No matter how many forms a culture will take, there will always be those who strive for difference and do it brilliantly. Just as Duran Duran and their patrons did back in the 80s.
Words: Ben White